By Corinne Teahen, BSW, RSW, MSW
Most individuals have had issues with their body image at one time or another. It is important to understand that body image is an individual’s perception of how they look rather than what others see. More often women, but men too, can be overly critical of their looks and may perceive specific flaws in their physical appearance that others can barely detect, if at all.
It is normal that you may not feel as satisfied about a certain aspect of your appearance on an occasional basis that may cause you to not feel as good about yourself for a brief period of time. For example, the discomfort related to the perception that a favourite pair of pants looks too tight may lead you to make positive lifestyle changes. You may decide to take up a regular exercise program and eat a healthier diet –helpful strategies that can lead to an improved body image and enhance your self-esteem. You may also decide that accepting yourself and buying a bigger pair of pants is an option, too. However, if you are continuously pre-occupied and dissatisfied with your body image to the point that it is preventing you from taking part in the daily activities of life, it is important to find a way to overcome this obstacle.
Negative Impact on Self-esteem
Body image and self- esteem generally go hand in hand. The more you focus on your dissatisfaction with a particular aspect of your appearance, the more likely it is that your self-esteem will be negatively impacted. The way a person feels about him or herself has a direct correlation to what he/she views in the mirror. It often becomes a vicious circle for those individuals who sometimes take desperate measures to change something about their physical appearance in the hope that it will make them feel better about themselves or find greater enjoyment in life.
These individuals can often end up feeling anxious and sad a great deal of the time and may stop attending social events, regularly miss work or other important activities due to ongoing feelings of worthlessness. As a result, they may become socially isolated and withdrawn leading to an increase in negative symptoms. The cultural context in which we live has people often focused on unattainable standards and an emphasis on superficial beauty. This heavily influences the public in feeling like they are not perfect as they are and can make it difficult for some individuals to accept themselves and having a need to change to fit an ideal.
What is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)?
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is an evidence-based, structured approach that helps individuals develop an understanding of the connection between thoughts and feelings and how that influences behaviours and sustains difficulties in one’s life. CBT focuses on challenging unhelpful thinking patterns (thoughts, beliefs and attitudes) and behaviour to bring changes to feelings and emotions.
CBT is used in psychotherapy to assist individuals in dealing with a wide variety of issues such as anxiety, depression, posttraumatic stress, substance abuse, anger management, grief, chronic pain and obsessive- compulsive disorder (OCD). With issues related to body image, CBT therapists focus upon helping individuals to challenge the way they interpret or give meaning to their negative perceptions. In CBT, it is believed that it is not the event that leads to difficult feelings, but it is the interpretation of the situation or the meaning given to that experience. Treatment is collaborative between client and therapist and emphasizes skill building. Homework is given to the client between sessions to assist in developing new skills.
How does CBT work?
CBT emphasizes that our thoughts, behaviours and feelings (including emotions and physical sensations) are interrelated. In Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, both how you think (cognitive) and what you do (behaviour) is explored. With the help of a therapist, you will learn to understand that your thoughts have the power to control your emotions and behaviours. You will be assisted in understanding that your thinking often involves thoughts that are not accurate or distorted. With guidance, you will begin to understand that changes in the way you think and behave can reduce psychological symptoms and distress.
Likewise, through CBT, you will learn that your behaviour can affect the way we think and feel. Those individuals, who are struggling with body image and self-esteem issues, often engage in behaviour that is not helpful. For example, if you think that your clothes are too tight, the choice to binge diet most often is not successful or only helpful in the short run. Through CBT, you will be helped to understand that through limiting self-destructive coping strategies and implementing healthier ones, you will experience an improvement in your mental health.
How can CBT help with Body image and Self Esteem Issues?
We have already established that individuals struggling with issues related to body image often have perceptions that are flawed and inaccurate. In CBT, a therapist will try and help you challenge negative thinking patterns to work towards more balanced realistic ones.
The process of helping individual’s re-evaluate thinking begins by having clients identify negative automatic thoughts. For individuals who have a poor body image, they often give a great deal of value to their physical appearance and use it primarily as a way to measure their self worth. This can be very challenging and may take time to help an individual let go of deeply embedded beliefs.
Once negative thoughts have been identified, the goal is to work toward challenging negative thoughts – first by evaluating the evidence that gives credence to the thoughts. Once the negative thoughts have been identified and then evaluated for accuracy and truthfulness, the individual is helped to work on more balanced/realistic thoughts.
The process of challenging negative thoughts with the goal to move towards balanced ones can be helpful in overcoming the unhealthy emotions and behaviour related to body image. With the support and guidance of a trained therapist and an individual’s willingness to be patient and to practice the steps outlined above, it is possible for positive change to happen. Body image is just one facet of self- perception that influences self-esteem – because as we know character, socio-economic status, and lots of other things contribute as well.
Learn more about Corinne and how she can help you identify self-destructive coping strategies and implement healthier ones. Contact us today if you’re ready to experience an improvement in your mental health.
- Beck, J., (2011). Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, Basics and Beyond, Second Edition. New York: The Guilford Press.
- Veale, David., Willson, Rob and Clarke Alex., (2009). Overcoming Body Image problems Including Body Dysmorphic Disorder: A self-help guide using Cognitive Behavioural Techniques. New York: Basic Books.
- Clinical Centre for Intervention., (2012). Building Body Acceptance. Retrieved from http://www.cci.health.wa.gov.au/resources/infopax.cfm?Info_ID=55
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